Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari Image Credit: AP

As a crisis unfolded last week for Pakistan's army troops deployed across the country's northern Siachen region bordering India, the glaring gap between Pakistan's ruling class and the reality on the ground came to light.

The incident involved the lives of 135 Pakistani soldiers, buried under more than 20 metres of snow after a major avalanche struck the region.

Rescue efforts launched almost instantly in the aftermath of this calamity,were still ongoing several days later without any success in sight.

The incident is one of the worst of its kind ever to hit Pakistan's army in one of the world's most inhospitable terrains, made worse by terrible weather conditions.

It also came as a powerful reminder of a futile conflict which began in the 1980s. More than two decades later, the conflict on the heights of Siachen has become widely known as the highest altitude battlefield of its kind, without the possibility of an early end in sight.

But the difficult dynamics of this battle which stared Pakistanis in the face yet again in the past week, also abundantly illustrate a gap surrounding the country's internal ruling structure.

As Pakistanis reacted in ways ranging from intense prayers for the safe return of the soldiers to simply awaiting news of rescue efforts, President Asif Ali Zardari, the head of state, was once again absent from the front line.

For Pakistanis familiar with Zardari's history, this was not the first time that he had kept away in the face of adversity.

Four years after Zardari became Pakistan's president — a position which by default makes him the supreme commander of the armed forces — his reaction to this latest episode was almost predictable. In the absence of Pakistan's president from Siachen's frontline, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the army's chief of staff, led the rescue efforts.

Likewise too, for those who have followed the Pakistan army's continuing battle against Taliban and Al Qaida militants across the country's tribal areas along the Afghan border, Zardari's absence should hardly be surprising. To date, he has not shown up anywhere on the front lines where the battle involves a literally eyeball-to-eyeball conflict between Pakistan's forces and militants in the tribal areas.

As Pakistanis awaited news of the Siachen soldiers, Zardari spent part of the past week seeking to buttress the position of his widely unpopular government. Nothing could have been a more telling description of where the government's primary interest lies than Friday's expansion of Pakistan's cabinet.

Public apathy

Some of the country's former ministers who previously served under the regime of Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) found themselves returning to the cabinet. The expansion, in a likely election year, said much about the motivation of the country's ruling class.

In sharp contrast to the popular preoccupation, the news from Siachen, Islamabad's ruling politicians instead appeared to have their attention squarely diverted towards the political future of the country particularly in relation to their own future.

Going forward no one should be surprised over the widespread public apathy across Pakistan towards the way their country is ruled. With a set of top rulers who are simply too detached from the most important affairs of the state, it's no surprise that most Pakistanis feel deeply neglected and therefore disillusioned. For a country where politicians have seldom had opportunities of unfettered civilian rule as witnessed by Zardari and the PPP in the past few years, Pakistan is truly confronted with the tragic writing on the wall.

Ironically, it was the PPP under the rule of the late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and Zardari's wife, which was widely seen as promoting the cause of democracy. But the party's dismal performance in overseeing an improvement in living conditions has only made it increasingly unpopular under Zardari's leadership in the past four years.

The decision to expand the cabinet may well be a desperate effort to win back some of the PPP's popular support that has been squarely lost. But such patchwork can simply not be a substitute for popular support earned through hardwork and performance.

It is no surprise that many Pakistanis are asking; "Where is the government?" Others, having seen Zardari's absence from Siachen in the past week, may well be pushed to ask the question; "Where is the president?"

 

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.